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More On Racism: Black Anger And White Guilt

There have been varying responses to the recent blog dialogue between Fabio Rojas, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and me over the existence and persistence of racism in the US — what one colleague aptly called a “blogstorm.”  (Just in case you are just tuning in, see Fabio’s original “post-racism” thesis, Tressie’s first response, my first response, Fabio’s response to me, Tressie’s second response, and my second response.)

Racism And Rage

Some friends and colleagues have cautioned me against participating in such public dialogue, fearing that I may face professional consequences.  Others have offered their sympathy, I suppose out of concern that I feel attacked or at least stressed by these conversations.  Friends, colleagues, and even relatives — mostly people of color — have cheered me on, knowing that this is a tough, yet important dialogue.  I have also heard that various anonymous commentators have criticized me for so publicly demonstrating my emotions related to the topic of racism.

Fabio also pointed out that, in my original post, I noted my outrage regarding his suggestion that America is now post-racist.  I have yet to address this aspect of his response, though Tressie hinted that there is something problematic about this:

Here, I will try to avoid being labeled as an “outraged” black woman by sticking as closely as possible to the logical argument Fabio as put forth.

And, concludes her post with:

Was that rational enough for me to not be the angry black woman today? Eh.

A relative with whom I shared my participation in Blogstorm 2013 also took issue with Fabio’s acknowledgement of my outrage.  I did cringe upon my first read of Fabio’s response to me: “A few days ago, Eric Grollman was outraged by my post on “post-racist” society.”  I felt that my rage had been spotlighted in a way that undermined my point and my entire participation in the conversation.

What’s Wrong With Rage?

Of course, I do not think that Fabio meant any harm by directly citing my own words.  But, the murmurs about rage and racism are worth further examination.  Regardless of Fabio’s intentions, why would I fear public acknowledgement of the emotions I experienced in the midst of this dialogue about racism?

Reading Audre Lorde‘s “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Anger” in Sister Outsider this morning provided some insight.  At a speech she delivered in 1981 at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, she noted that many white feminists offered rare, obligatory attention to racism in their fight against patriarchy.  And, when the few feminist of color participated, their displays of anger and rage made their white counterparts uncomfortable.

Considering the structural and everyday realities of racism, anger is an appropriate, even expected, reaction.  But, it appears that these emotions scare white people at all points on the political spectrum.  Why?  As Lorde suggests, that anger evokes guilt, particularly in white liberals.  To demonstrate one’s raw emotions regarding the oppressive reality of racism is to convey just how real, just how ugly, and just how damaging and constraining it is.

But white guilt “is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of actions…it is a just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, and the ultimate protection for changelessness (p. 130).”  Many liberal white people are uncomfortable seeing or hearing racism and the consequences it poses for people of color — hence, the anxious desire to declare America “post-racial.

A Personal Anecdote

On a number of occasions, (well-intentioned) white friends and relatives have asked me to lower my voice when speaking openly about racism in public spaces.  However, I am not silenced when I am laughing loudly and enjoying lighter topics of conversation.  Embedded in these requests is “please stop talking about racism, you’re making other [white] people [and me] uncomfortable.”   By openly discussing racist oppression, I am forcing those who benefit from it to stop pretending that racism and their white privilege do not exist.  And, good-hearted, liberal white people, in their disdain for racism, do not want to acknowledge their role in its continuance.

I have also, on a number of occasions, been criticized for being “militant.”  Again, these comments have often come from liberal-minded white people.  Their criticism is not that I take issue with racism, but rather that I do so without suppressing my anger.  What they want of me is to address racism on their terms: through mainstream social science; using “professional” language and demeanor; embracing all people, no matter how racist.  The irony!

For example, I was asked, by a white colleague during a panel on diversity in graduate school, whether I try to peacefully work things out with whites who offend or exclude me, or simply dismiss them as “racist.”  I responded by trying to push a conceptualization of racism as a system of oppression, as a system that structures every aspect and every level of society.  I noted that I assume all whites (who do not actively challenge racism) are racists, so, rather than getting hung on up playing the “who’s a racist?” game (which derails meaningful conversations), I can focus on the larger reality of racism.  Most of the white faces in the room contorted, likely just as they dismissed any and everything I had to say that day.

Another Manifestation Of Racism: Emotional Control

Thus, another manifestation of racism is how people of color respond and react to their oppression.  We are asked to speak in ways and on subjects that do not alienate whites.  When we threaten to directly name the persistence of racism, we are silenced.  Or, alternatively, our emotional displays are highlighted to undermine our perspective.  We are dismissed as “uppity,” “hostile,” “militant,” “angry,” or even violent.

That we are not free in how we feel about racism reflects yet another aspect of racist control over our minds, bodies, and souls.  (White) America listens when safe, non-threatening white men slip in discussions of racism into otherwise lighthearted conversations.

Embracing Anger

In order to fully understand racism, how it affects the lives of people of color, we must listen to and embrace how people of color respond – how they feel.  For, as Lorde notes, “[a]nger is loaded with information and energy” (p. 127).  To silence the anger that people of color feel, or to force them to speak in ways foreign to their own experience and emotions is to pervert the true reality of racist oppression.  This is a form of “selective hearing” at a minimum, pushing the message that racism is gone while ignoring the voices of people of color that say otherwise.  Yet, I would argue that this sort of control over how people of color feel and how they display those feelings is another prison bar in the jail of racism.

We are overdue for honing the creative potential of the rage that people of color suppress day after day.  For, the suppression of these emotions hinders our ability to move forward in eliminating racism:

Any discussion among women about racism must include the recognition and use of anger.  This discussion must be direct and creative because it is crucial.  We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty (p. 128-9).

In response to persistence of racism even in 2013: yes, I am angry.  My anger is a reasonable and expected reaction.  And, I stress that rage is not violent in its own right.  While it has motivated some toward violent retaliation, it also drives non-violent efforts to create change.

What else besides anger over the existence of inequality would motivate any action to challenge it?  Clearly, white guilt immobilizes.  So, maybe it’s time for more anti-racist whites to get angry, too!

Extending The Debate: Are Black Scholars Obligated To Talk About Race? Some Of Us Can’t!

The New York Times recently devoted a Room for Debate discussion to the subject, “Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?”  Among the five Black scholars, some of them more known than the others, the responses regarding Black scholars’ obligation to talk about race publicly, in interactions with colleagues and students, and in their research, varied.  Black intellectuals should only speak on matters related to their area of scholarly expertise, or, at a minimum, should not be expected to speak about and study race.  And, frankly, we don’t really want just anybody talking about race just because they are of color.  But, given the legacy of racism and racial discrimination, even in the academy, we have an obligation to help future generations of scholars, though too few of us are concerned with anything but our own success.

Extending The Debate

I do not agree with every aspect of each debaters’ responses.  But, I appreciate that the question has been asked, and multiple view points have been offered.  One complication to which these scholars hinted, but did not directly address, is the constraints that exist for all scholars, but especially scholars of color.  Ironically, the securing of a PhD and tenure, rights that symbolically serve as protection against professional harm, have the opposite effect: they silence.  En route to securing tenure, usually around a professor’s sixth year in a faculty position, junior professors must proceed carefully in their scholarship, teaching, academic service (don’t even bother with community service), and interactions with colleagues and students (don’t bother speaking to the public, unless it’s media attention for a new publication or book).  Those six years of watching what you say while on the tenure-track follow 5-10 years of even greater silence and less protection as a graduate student.  Those 11-16 years of constraints on what we do and what we say represent an entire generation of scholars who cannot yet fully engage the academy and the world for fear of professional consequences.

This imposed silence for, hopefully, the protection of tenure to say or do whatever you want (within reason) is heightened for scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  Due to the ongoing reality of racism and other systems of oppression, one must work even harder (the “Black tax“) and be vigilant about any obstacles that may arise to hinder our success.  But, due to those traps, there are even more reasons to speak up.  Graduate students watch as their departments pay lip-service to diversifying the faculty, while they either remain just as white or faculty of color leave in droves.  Black junior faculty navigate their colleagues’ suspicion that they were hired solely because of their race — an ironic twist of the reality of racism and programs like Affirmative Action that aim to challenge it.  Sadly, I fear that even beyond tenure, faculty of color are still relatively silent and hypervigilant well into their careers.

A Personal Anecdote

Though I have a tenure-track job in hand for the Fall, my graduate student status prevents me from sharing too much from my own personal experience regarding race and racism in the academy.  But, I can speak about one “safe” example, given its public nature.  One professor in my department, Fabio Rojas, who generally does work outside of race and racism but has done such work in the past, recently blogged to clarify the misguided discourse about a “post-racial” America.  He suggests, instead, that we live in a “post-racist” America:

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture. We definitely past a time where a law can simply say “Blacks can’t do X.” But race is still around and it’s all over the place. At least we can talk about.

Ironically, even he suggests that “at least we can talk about [it].”  When I first saw this post, I was outraged.  A tenured sociology professor, who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are gone:

  • Racial discrimination is no longer legitimate.
  • Most people don’t sit around and just hate people from other groups.
  • People, though, still enjoy racial advantages.
  • Race is still a big factor in our social lives. E.g., people overwhelming marry in group.
  • It’s ok to talk about race. We can even poke fun at others.
  • Some people are still “classically racist” in that they actually do sit around and hate others, but this, for the most part, has to be done underground.

Yes, “polite” white people no longer intentionally discriminate, at least in terms of saying “we won’t hire her because she’s Black!”  But, that does not deny the everyday reality of subtle exclusion thinly disguised as something other than race (“she doesn’t have good people skills”).  He underestimates the persistence of racial prejudice in America, and just how easy it is to talk about race (e.g., without whites being accused of being racist or fearing such accusations, without people of color being dismissed as hypervigilant or overly sensitive).  The biggest flaw of his argument is missing the continued reality of racism within institutional practices: redlining and mortgage discrimination, the overrepresentation of Black and Latino men in prisons, “standardized” testing in schools, and so on.

My Own Moment

As neuropsychopharmacologist Carl Hart said in his Room for Debate essay, I should mind my business in this matter, short of being an “expert” on race and racism.  (So, too, should have the professor in question.)  Or, maybe this situation simply represents differing viewpoints among scholars of color: I know from research, history, and personal experience that racism is alive and well, albeit in a new form; this professor thinks “[o]verall, America is a much more humane place for many its residents.”

However, I see this as more than a matter of different opinions.  Rather, I fear every discussion about race and racism contains the urgency of life or death.  To have a tenured professor, who has studied race extensively, and is a person of color himself, suggest all is well in this “post-racist” America is to give license to breathe a sigh of relief to white America that has been anxiously awaiting their “post-racial” society.  “See, even he said racism is a thing of the past!”  I feel a sense of obligation — as a sociologist, person of color, race scholar, anti-racist activist, and human who advocates for equality — to speak up and say, “um, I beg to differ!”

But, initially, I decided keep my mouth shut.  I am three months from the completion of my PhD training, and six away from beginning my exciting new life as a tenure-track professor.  Why jeopardize a drama-free exit from graduate studenthood?

Tell The Truths

Obviously, I have broken that silence in this post.  I agree with Stephon Alexander, a physicist, that I have an obligation to act in this moment, even if I never studied race or taught a course on race.  My expertise on what is wrong, what is right, what is inclusive, what is exclusive, what is discrimination and what isn’t is not limited to literature reviews, statistical analyses, and the peer-review process of publishing.  My own experiences serve as expertise!  Given the ironic constraints of PhD training and the tenure-track, I could end up waiting forever for the appropriate “expert” to come along to call out exclusive or unfair practices, and, even when they come along, sometimes they say otherwise.

Of course, if we all speak, we may have different opinions because, obviously, we have varied experiences.  But, I would much rather we have “many voices, many agendas” than having “the few, the famous” doing all of the talking.  Unfortunately, for now, these institutional constraints silence many for too long, and, ultimately, reward those who are silent, non-threatening, non-radical — the “good” Black scholars who don’t call attention to race and racism.  We have an obligation to speak out and support future generations of scholars of color so that this form of conditional acceptance (“it’s okay that you’re Black, just don’t make an issue of it!”) is eliminated.  The utility and liberating potential of academia and higher education for communities of color depend upon the full participation of scholars of color.

And, of course, we cannot do it alone.  White intellectuals, particularly those with anti-racist politics and scholarship, also have an obligation to speak up about race and racism.  Only then will it be easier to talk about race, and the burden to start and carry on those conversations will not fall on the shoulders of a few tenured Black scholars.